A.C. Wise is the author of numerous short stories appearing in print and online in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits Unlikely Story, an online magazine publishing three issues of fiction per year with various unlikely themes. Follow her on twitter as @ac_wise.
by A.C. Wise
Welcome to another Women to Read: Where to Start. August brings the deep heat of summer, so this time, I’m offering four short stories – brief journeys to dip into in order to escape the heat. But unlike a dip into a pool, these stories are far from comforting. If there’s any theme to loosely tie them together, it’s a thread of discomfort or unease running through each.
First up, my recommended starting point for Nicolette Barischoff’s work is “Pirate Songs” from the recently published anthology, Accessing the Future. The story opens with a crew of pirates assessing the salvage from a space ship found adrift, including a young girl found unconscious among the wreckage. The moment she wakes up, Margo vastly complicates the pirates’ lives. She has Spina Bifida and usually uses a chair to get around. On top of that, she just happens to be a diplomat’s daughter. The story features alternating points of view, but Margo’s are the ones that really shine. Through flashbacks, the reader see how Margo delighted in messing with the bots her diplomat mother set to tend to her every need, and how she outpaced the learning programs and pushed the limits of the virtual environments on her now-crashed ship. Once she adapts to the pirate ship, Margo similarly delights in making the crew uncomfortable, dragging herself around the ship and refusing to stay out of the way, despite not having her chair. One particularly effective scene has Margo barging in on the pirates’ meal and insisting on being included in their nefarious plans. She has no qualms about making the pirates uncomfortable in other ways, making it clear she’s smarter than them. Brief moments of fear keep her human, but she doesn’t dwell on them. Rather than letting herself be moved by events, Margo proactively includes herself in the pirates’ dealings, and ultimately comes up with a plan allowing them to deliver their illegal cargo, escape the law, and get her home. A self-rescuing princess indeed! (Okay, diplomat’s daughter, but why quibble.) On a selfish note, once you’ve read “Pirate Songs” and you’re hungry for more of Barischoff’s work, keep an eye out for her upcoming story in the Academia issue of Unlikely Story, which I co-edit.
“The Star Maiden”, published in Shimmer #26, is my recommended starting place for Roshani Chokshi’s work. It plays with discomfort and unease in the way it sets the fantastic against the realities of growing up, creating tension between belief and what is generally accepted as true. Early in the story, the main character is perfectly willing to accept her grandmother’s claim of being a fallen star. She drinks in all of her grandmother’s stories as truth, and accepts that they will dance together in the heavens one day. As the protagonist grows up, she begins to pull away from her grandmother’s stories, embarrassed by what she now perceives to be fantasy, or possibility senility. The protagonist’s grandmother gifts her with a dress worthy of star maiden, and requests that she wear to the 85th birthday party the family is planning for her. The main character only sees the dress as tacky, and tears it while trying it on, refusing to wear it in public. The awkward teenage-to-early-adult phase is well portrayed here. Similar to the story by Marrisa Lingen, which I cover below, you get a sense of a teenager trying on personas, but here the reader sees the story from the inside perspective, rather than the outside. Throughout the story, the prose if gorgeous and poetic. The moments between the main character and her grandmother, and the journey she takes from acceptance to doubt to hope is lovely. From the author bio which accompanies the story, I see Chokshi has a YA novel forthcoming. Personally, I will be eagerly anticipating it.
My recommended starting point for Wendy N. Wagner’s work, “Three Small Slices of Pumpkin Pie”, from the July issue of Farrago’s Wainscot certainly fits with the theme of unease and discomfort. The story follows a woman named Janet from the sixth grade until she’s a middle-aged woman. Wagner’s opening line perfectly sets the tone for the story, and tells you everything you need to know (emphasis on need to know) about the world: “By the middle of sixth grade almost every girl had her pumpkin, small and effervescently orange, tucked beneath her desk, the green vine laying neatly against her leg.” Wagner offers no explanation for these pumpkins, nor is one needed. They are simply a fact of life in a story that shows our world as it is, with one fantastic detail setting everything slightly askew. The pumpkins can be seen as a metaphor for the sexualization, commodification, and restrictions put on a woman’s body. Early on in the story, Janet’s college roommate talks about how all her boyfriend wants now that their relationship is serious is to ‘do the pumpkin’. Later in the story, Janet brings her own boyfriend home and there’s a disturbing scene where Janet’s father expounds on his view of a woman’s place in the world while cracking pumpkin seeds between his teeth. There are elements of the story that harken back to O.J. Cade’s “The Mussel Eater,” and Chikodili Emelumadu’s “Candy Girl,” both of which I covered in an earlier installment of Women to Read. Here again we see a woman’s body portrayed as something to be devoured, to be served up to a husband or partner, something not fully under the woman’s control. The ending of the story is somewhat enigmatic, and further ups the discomfort level. After her divorce, Janet seems on the verge of reclaiming her pumpkin, tearing at its flesh with her nails and climbing inside. As she’s on the verge of crawling completely inside the pumpkin, her ex-husband appears. The full implications of ‘doing the pumpkin’ are further illuminated, but it’s left to the reader to determine whether Janet reclaims herself, or gives into what her ex-husband has ‘always wanted’ in an attempt to win him back. There’s a visceralness to the story, and it packs a lot into a short space. Certainly a worthy starting point for Wagner’s work.
Last, but not least, my recommended starting place for Marissa Lingen’s work is “It Brought Us All Together,” recently published at Strange Horizons. Like Wagner’s story, this is a piece firmly rooted in our world, with one detail setting everything askew. In this case, it’s a deadly mycological plague. Lingen keeps the story personal, setting it in a high school where one of the students has been killed by the plague. The main character is another student whose parents were early victims of the plague. What really intrigued me about this story is the way it deals with grief. Very often in media – both written and visual – we see the most overwrought versions of grief. Here, Lingen gives us a character who mourns for her parents, but finds most public displays of emotion around death to be phony. The story serves as a commentary on the phase many teenagers go through of trying out personas as they struggle to find themselves. Many do this on the public stage, seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. In this case, the emotional response being tested happens to be grief, and it’s fascinating to see the story being told through the eyes of a character who has experienced death intimately, versus those around her who are experiencing it for the first time at more of a distance. The discomfort angle comes in as the main character refuses to participate in the more performative aspects mourning, taking part in the communal sadness and assuring everyone around her she’s ‘normal’. The scenario Lingen sets up here strikes me as very real, and again, shows an aspect of grief not as often dealt with in fiction. Some people don’t cry; it doesn’t mean they’re hurting any less. This story recognizes that everyone has the right to cope with trauma in their own way, and that’s an important message to get out there.
So there you have my recommendations for four fantastic women and where to start with their work. As always, please share your own recommendations in the comments, and check back in September for more women to read!